The changing face of Edmonton
Flying into Edmonton last week, I was struck by the unusual beauty of the new air traffic control tower at the Edmonton International Airport. The tower has a decidedly fluid and arty feel to it, much like the recently built Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA). Having travelled in and out of Edmonton for the past 15 years, somehow the tower (and the AGA for that matter) feels strangely out of place.
Like most Albertans, I’ve always equated Edmonton with two things - it’s Alberta’s capital and home to the mammoth West Edmonton Mall. But the city’s landscape is changing fast.
If you’ve lived in Alberta long enough, you’ll know that Edmonton has always been “different”. While Calgary sometimes has a reputation for being a city of conservative cowboys, Edmonton has a more definitive hipster, multicultural vibe. In fact, Edmonton is home to Alberta’s only NDP member of parliament (gasp!), something which would be unthinkable in Calgary or anywhere else in Alberta.
EDMONTON FUN FACTS:
- Edmonton was founded in 1795 as a Hudson's Bay outpost.
- Edmonton is the most northern city in North America with a population > 1 million people.
- Edmonton is home to Canada's first Victoria's Secret and the only Simons Department store outside of Quebec.
- The coldest temperature ever recorded was -48ºC in 1972 or -61ºC with the wind chill. Yipes! However, Edmonton is one of Canada's sunniest cities, averaging 325 days of sunshine per year.
- Michael J. Fox and k.d. lang were both born in Edmonton. Arguably, the most famous Edmontonian is Wayne Gretzky but he was actually born in Ontario. If you're Canadian, you should already know that!
Edmonton’s population is rapidly creeping towards the 900,000 mark (versus 1.2 million in Calgary). This doesn’t include the very large neighbouring communities, such as St. Albert, Leduc, Fort Saskatchewan and Strathcona county, all adding up to a metropolitan area that’s well over 1 million people. Edmonton is on track to surpass Ottawa’s population and will soon become Canada’s 4th largest municipality. The city recently estimated it has has a population growth rate of almost 7.5%, surpassing that of Calgary which is currently growing at about 6.7% a year.
But the question remains, why chose Edmonton?
Calgary’s achilles heal is its relatively narrow economy - it is a city of corporate headquarters, almost exclusively in energy business, and the many engineering and accounting firms that support the oil and gas industry.
But Edmonton’s anatomy is slightly different. Some head offices, large universities and trades schools, lots of manufacturing facilities, a few chemical plants, big oil refineries and plenty of oil field service companies. Edmonton also has the distinct advantage of being a lot more affordable than Calgary where average housing prices have recently topped the half million dollar mark, versus a far more reasonable $350,000 in Edmonton.
The city of Edmonton has embarked on an aggressive plan to change the face of its downtown core and inner-city neighbourhoods. New development plans are intended to bring more Edmontonians to the centre of the city, reduce urban sprawl and better connect communities through mass transit. This hasn’t been a universally popular in Edmonton, or anywhere else in Alberta for that matter. Alberta has traditionally embraced the American donut model of city planning - people work in the centre of the city and vacate to the suburbs after 5pm. Getting people to adopt more dense inner-city living requires a cultural change, something Albertans have not always embraced.
But the city is trying its darnedest. It began by moving its beloved hockey arena closer to the city centre and plans to build a massive inner-city working-shopping-living-tourist destination aptly named the Edmonton Arena District (EAD). Stantec partnered up with EAD and recently announced a new head office in what will be Edmonton’s tallest tower, standing tall at 62 storeys or 224 m (ironically 10m short of Calgary’s iconic Bow tower). Also part of their $2 billion plan is the relocation of the Royal Alberta Museum, redevelopment of the Blatchford City Centre Airport in and extension of their LRT (light rail transit) line.
I’ve long had a fond admiration of Edmonton - it's the first Alberta city I came to know when I first moved here from the east coast a long time ago. It’s a lot more down to earth and less pretentious than its big sister to the south. And I’m happy to see it being transformed for the better.